3 Secrets to Transitioning into Professional Illustration

I’ve shared numerous “trade secrets” with fellow artists. I thank Joe Duncan, phenomenal illustrator and printmaker, for asking this question:


Now’s the part where I ask you for something. I’ve always looked to you as a mentor, and your advice has never steered me in anything, but the right direction. Our past conversations have always challenged and rewarded me on a professional level and personally as a growing artist. I was hoping pick your brain about making the transition into more full-time freelancing career. I would like to chat about the things I should be thinking of and taking into consideration, as well as checkpoints, I should be looking for to guide my decision to make this planned transition meaningful and effective.


#1.  Understand your value before becoming a freelancer.

Remove freelance artist from your vocabulary! Professional Illustrators, Graphic Designers, even Sandwich-makers have added value. Clients respect the word “pro” far more than the word “free.” Professionals in any career require a basic income to exist: bread, water, cell phone, etc. Some professionals desire a more comfortable existence: reliable car, home, etc., while others choose a lifestyle: brand names, travel, etc. No matter your professional classification, define the value of your time with a desired monetary outcome.

#2.  Develop multiple income streams.

Yes, don’t quit the day job yet. For aspiring illustrators, the day job and illustration contracts are multiple income streams. If balancing these two isn’t possible, a full-time illustration career may not be for you.

Transitioning from Art Director, a 40-60 hour week at base salary, to “freelance” illustrator was double the work. Believe me, I was that guy. Now as a professional illustrator, most people assume I have one job—not true. I’m an illustrator, author, publisher, graphic designer, and public speaker. My annual income fluctuates between several income streams.

For my transition roadmap, I concentrated my time in one area of illustration—picture books. My reason was, do something fun that you’ll enjoy after working all day. I committed to watercoloring one page a day for two hours. This commitment allowed me to illustrate a picture book every 30 days, if I wanted. Below is how I mapped out the income for the transition.

First Year:
4 illustration contracts:  120 days to earn $24,000–$30,000
Day Job:  355 days to earn $45,000 salary
Vacation:  10 days to earn $0

Estimated Annual Income:  $69,000–$75,000 for 355, 8-hour work days, which included 120, 2-hour nights.

Second Year:
4 illustration contracts:  120 days to earn $24,000–$30,000
Day Job:  355 days to earn $45,000 salary
Public Speaking:  5 days to earn $2,500
Royalties:  1500-5000 books sold in 365 days to earn $1,500–$5,000 in royalties. (Royalty based on 10% of a $10 Net Sale or $1.00 per book sold.)
Vacation:  5 days to earn $0

Estimated Income:  $73,000–$87,500 for 355, 8-hour work days, which included 120, 2-hour nights. Plus, 5 days vacation were allocated to public speaking.

By the end of the second year, the day job salary of $45,000 (355, 8 hour work days) was matched with my Professional Illustrator income of $30,500–$40,000 (120, 2-hour nights and 5, 6-hour days speaking). Note: My Professional Illustrator’s income was created through multiple income streams: contracts, royalties, and speaking.

Full-time Professional:
5 illustration contracts:  150 days to earn $30,000–$40,000
Public Speaking:  45-60 days to earn $22,500–$30,000
Royalties:  4500–9000 books sold within 365 days to earn $4,500–$9,000 in royalties. (Royalty based on 10% of a $10 Net Sale or $1.00 per book sold.)
Vacation:  155 days while earning royalties from past contracts

Estimated Income:  $57,000–$79,000 (for 210 days of work). Note: This income was pretax, and based on my timely completion of projects, hence professional.

#3.  Don’t quit the day job until asked or all debt has been paid in full.

Two incomes are better than one—ask my wife. With the additional income from illustrating, pay off or down debt while saving six months salary. After quitting the day job, deadlines become less demanding and laziness takes over. Minimal debt and a financial buffer are necessities during any transition. Marriage wasn’t a reliable financial buffer—ask my divorced friends.

Once the transition was complete, I had 155 vacation days! I dedicated 100 days to new projects that generated income or enhanced my professional skills. This left me with 55 vacation days, enough to make previous co-workers and family envious.

I attribute my decade of success to understanding the value of my time, maintaining multiple income streams, and working through my potential laziness. The above formula remains my roadmap for transition and maintaining a professional illustration career.